Session 8 – Ethics and Posthumanism in Archaeology: The Unexamined Life

Timetable: Saturday afternoon 1430-1800 in the Janet Spector Zoom Room.

Format: Standard

Organisers: Artur Ribeiro, Manuel Fernández-Götz


One of Socrates’ most famous dictums was that an unexamined life was not worth living. For many Greek philosophers, the examination of life entailed the understanding of what it meant to live a good life, that is, what it means to be a good citizen and uphold virtues within their community. Thousands of years later, Socrates’ ideas have been abandoned. In current times, posthumanist thought has set itself as the new main theoretical current in archaeology, emphasising relational networks involving human and non-human objects, the importance of objects in themselves, and de-emphasising the role of humans in the vitalist processes. More importantly, posthumanism has also highlighted the importance of perceiving reality in all its ontological glory, rather than merely as a by-product of human symbolic systems. 

Despite its popularity, many scholars within and outside archaeology have questioned: where are ethics in posthumanist thought? Is it just a by-product of networks involving humans and non-humans? Are ethics something you can just add onto posthumanist approaches and stir? The aim of this session is to conduct a further examination of ethics and posthumanist thought and whether the study of ethics in archaeology is not better served by replacing ontology with deontology, that is, the study of humans as agents with ethical responsibilities. This opens the door to discussions about our past informants, and what rules and laws meant to them, what it means to break those rules, and ultimately what it means to be a good or bad member of a social community in the past (and present).


1430 – Introduction to the session

Artur Ribeiro & Manuel Fernández-Götz

1440 – What does “right” or “wrong” mean to a gun? From ontology to deontology in archaeology.

Artur Ribeiro, University of Kiel

The posthumanisms have been accused of deftly side-stepping ethical concerns. In response, the posthumanists have brought up countless examples of having in fact addressed ethical concerns. Clearly, there is a thorough misunderstanding between posthumanists and their critics as to what “ethics” actually means.

The aim of this talk is to emphasize that when it comes to ethics, what the critics of the posthumanisms are actually critiquing is the idea that ethical responsibility is distributed across several human and non-human elements. The critics of posthumanisms are not simply claiming that the posthumanisms ignore ethics; they are claiming that the ethical perspectives and consequences of posthumanist thought are limited and inadequate.

If a gun, if a phone, and if a cup cannot differentiate right from wrong, then how do we attribute responsibility to these objects? How do we put actual guns and phones (not human representatives of these objects, mind you) on trial or in jail? What is a justice system where guns and phones have to be jailed? Instead of a clearly insufficient and limited “ontological” view of reality, a considerably more simple and easier to understand deontological perspective is provided. It will be demonstrated why this deontological perspective makes more sense to archaeology, in fact, it will be argued that this perspective already aligns with the vast majority of how archaeology is practiced.

1500 – Are we all post-humanists now? Repositioning humans to the centre stage of archaeological approaches.

Christos Giamakis, University of Sheffield

Post-humanism is steadily becoming the dominant strand in archaeological theory, the final nail in the coffin of post-processualism. Long gone are the days of humans at the centerstage of archaeological approaches since things are now considered as equally important agents. Yet, this approach is not without its shortcomings as stern critiques against it have already started to appear. The aim of this paper is to contribute to this debate by addressing the shortcomings of post-humanist approaches through expanding on two main points: the fact that these approaches, despite claims against this, are fundamentally Western-centric and the profound lack of ethics involved in these. In contrast to the proclamations of post-humanist archaeologists that they want to address what they consider as an imbalance between people and things, this paper will argue that these approaches are in fact a product of the way people in the ‘Western’ world, living in increasingly materialistic societies, perceive the world to be. If everything can be interpreted as the result of various networks or assemblages, then this leaves little room for discussion around themes such as ethics, power relations and social dynamics. Past societies did not emerge in an ahistorical vacuum – instead they were the outcomes of conscious decisions with both intended and unintended consequences. Human agents should not be denied of their agency nor its primacy over objects without of course overlooking the importance of the material world in enabling or constraining their intricate decisions and choices. Consequently, it will be suggested that what the discipline really needs is not post-humanism but rather a form of neo-humanism, one that will take into consideration the role of things in constituting the social realities within which the emergence of different forms of humanness became a real possibility.

1520 – Discussion

1530 – Break

1600 – Ethics, Posthumanism, and the Archaeology of Imperial Encounters

Manuel Fernández-Götz, University of Edinburgh

Posthumanist approaches are enjoying increasing popularity in archaeology, in many cases offering new avenues for building a more inclusive and diverse discipline. However, some significant issues have also been pointed out. While the considerable heterogeneity among the approaches classified as ‘posthumanist’ makes it difficult to generalise criticisms, it can be noted that a significant amount of these studies have ignored, or underestimated, issues of power, inequality, and conflict. This “political agnosticism” (Gonzalez-Ruibal 2019) is, however, highly political in its own way, even if unintended. When it comes to analysing scenarios of imperial and colonial expansionism, the ethical shortcomings of focusing narratives (and often agency) on non-human entities become particularly apparent. These issues will be exemplified with the discussion of some recent approaches to the Roman Empire. Posthumanist calls to understand ‘Romanisation’ as “objects in motion” or “a particular patterning of material culture” risk hiding or forgetting the human stories behind the process of Roman expansion, from the suffering caused by violent military campaigns to the creation of huge inequalities including large-scale enslavement. Similar observations can be made for other historical episodes of imperial expansion in the more recent past. As an alternative, it is argued that the concepts of ‘things effectancy’ and ‘predatory regimes’ are better suited to grasp the ‘darker sides’ of imperialism, and can therefore contribute to decolonising the past and putting subaltern groups at the forefront.

1620 – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Ethical implications of how ‘things’ are conceptualised in Posthumanist archaeology.

Guillermo Díaz de Liaño, University of Edinburgh

The rising popularity of Posthumanist approaches is undeniable, as they are quickly becoming hegemonic within Archaeological theory in the English-speaking world. Among their myriad of proposals, one of the main ones consists of de-emphasising the ontological privilege that has placed ‘the human’ as the centre of archaeological narratives. Moreover, certain posthumanist approaches, especially the so-called Symmetrical ones, are defending the importance that things-in-themselves have in Archaeology, not as a tool or medium to approach the human past, but as the ultimate objects of archaeological research.

This talk aims to analyse the ethical implications of this conceptualisation of things-in-themselves, through the review of a particular case study drawn from Symmetrical Archaeology. For this, the axiological aspects surrounding things-in-themselves will be analysed in relation to 1) the future of archaeological research; 2) the rights of human and non-human entities both in the past and the present, and 3) the contemporary production of archaeological knowledge and heritage in an unequal world.

1640 – Discussion

1650 – Posthumanism and Animal Ethics: An Archaeological Perspective on the Treatment of Non-Human Beings.

Aleksa K. Alaica, University of Alberta

Each day it is become clearer and clearer that archaeology is a discipline that has great potential to positively changing the contemporary world. Archaeological theory provides fluid ways to interpret past practices, but it also allows for creative thought to explore new possibilities for the present. This paper examines the value of posthumanism in formulating more responsible animal ethics. I explore the intensive use of llamas and alpacas among the Moche culture in the arid north coast of Peru during the second half of the 1st millennium CE through the lens of kincentric ecologies and non-human relations. By taking a posthumanist stance, I provide a compelling case for the way that closely perceived relationships between human communities and some non-human animal groups fostered distinct ways of exploitation and care. I argue that it is only through recognising animals as other-than-human is it possible to deeply care and value these groups for their importance in subsistence strategies, as ritual offerings, and distinct agentive forces. While ethical practice is not universal, there is tremendous potential for archaeology to contribute new ways of interpreting human-animal interactions by moving beyond ‘the human’ as the only way to define humanity. Instead, our relationality with non-human beings underpins a more accurate definition of what is means to be human.

1710 – On Critical Hope and ‘Anthropos’ of the Non-Anthropocentric Discourses: Some Thoughts on Archaeology in the Anthropocene

Piraye Hacıgüzeller, University of Antwerp

In this talk I will be scrutinising the non-anthropocentric discourses of the Anthropocene with the ultimate aim of starting a discussion about their use in archaeology. Specifically, I will be stressing that these discourses inherit the hope for human progress that characterises Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, i.e. ‘critical hope’. This is a type of hope that renders the non-anthropocentric discourses of the Anthropocene self-contradictory. Even when they manage to escape the hold of critical hope, such discourses, I will argue, still suffer from ethical failings due to their inherent lack of focus on human-human relations and largely ahistorical nature. I will conclude the talk by advocating an Anthropocene archaeology not dominated by non-anthropocentric discourses and making a related call for a slow archaeology of the Anthropocene.

1730 – Discussion

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